Acquiring a Sewing Machine: Sewing Saturday
Whether you already own a sewing machine or are going to be going out to get one, there are some things to know. Not everybody will need the same sewing machine. Not everybody will use their machine in the same manner. And not everybody will be as hard on their machines as my mom and I are. We’ll take you through what to know if you already own a sewing machine, and what to know if you are going to need to acquire a sewing machine.
My other post for today (read here) was picture heavy…this one is not! But there’s a lot of good information, so read on. We’ll teach you more about sewing machines next week, but here are some things to think about as you start looking for a machine to use.
My mom, Trudy is more knowledgeable on this subject than I, so I’m going to share what she had to say, and add in a few notes of my own at the end. Trudy says…
If you have inherited a sewing machine from someone and you know they used it a lot with success and took good care of it, lucky you! That means it is a quality machine. If you inherited it and have no idea when the last time was that they actually used it, take it in to a sewing machine dealer to have a once-over. (There are sewing dealers out there that only work on sewing machines, but often times you will find who you are looking for at a sewing and vacuum store.) They will dust and oil it, put in a new needle and check to make sure everything is functioning properly, plus repair anything. They should tell you before proceeding on repairs outside of a normal tune-up, but if you’re concerned, ask them that they not make any repairs beyond that without consulting with you first so you know what costs and parts will be involved. Sometimes old machines just need a little TLC to get them in great working order again.
Buying a Machine
Buying a sewing machine is an investment, but it doesn’t have to be a large investment. If you are buying new, I honestly don’t have a specific brand to recommend, as most machines today are really well-made. I have owned several PFAFF’s and absolutely love them, but I also have owned some inexpensive Brother sewing machines from Walmart that have served me and my daughters well. If you are new to sewing, I recommend you stick with a mechanical, or electronic sewing machine, not computerized. Most people will find that a very basic mechanical machine will serve them well if they take good care of it. If you find you really, really love sewing and want to start getting fancy, it’s very common to up-grade down the line, but not always necessary. I would avoid the cheapest-of-the-cheap machines that you can find at some discount stores, as they will usually not stitch well and cause you more headaches than you can imagine. You can also go to a sewing machine shop (again, sewing and vacuum centers) and ask about re-furbished machines, or buy new if you like. They can be very helpful by asking you what your intent for sewing is and how much sewing you plan to do. Don’t be swayed by all of the bells and whistles if you are really not sure you will ever even use them!
What to Look For in a Machine
A machine should have a good straight stitch, meaning that it should actually stitch straight and not crooked, the stitching on the back should look as good as the stitching on the front. (Being unpracticed in straight stitching is not the same as the machine having a poor straight stitch…) A zig-zag stitch is pretty much a must as well. A sewing machine manual is extremely helpful and I highly recommend you use it! It should come with your machine. If you do not have a manual for your machine, you may be able to find the correct one online.
Most machines are pretty standard, meaning the main features are pretty much the same on every machine, it’s just a matter of extras and moving some things to different areas on the machine itself. On a new machine, everything has been factory-set, so it should have been tested to be sure it at least does the simplest of things properly, so depending upon where you buy it, you may not be able to test it. But if you go to a sewing machine shop, they should let you test it and if you have questions they should be able to answer them and show you anything you need to know. If a machine is ridiculously loud, something is wrong. Stitching should feel smooth, the machine shouldn’t feel clunky, and more than anything, you should feel comfortable in the basic knowledge of how to use it. Some machine shops and sewing stores will include free lessons on how to use your machine for basic stitching and how to do simple things like threading a bobbin, how to re-set stitches for different tasks, changing the needle, etc… If you want to be able to sew buttonholes in the future, then look for a machine that has an automatic buttonhole stitch. You can ask about it or look at the box and see if it says it includes such.
Where to Buy a Machine
You can buy sewing machines on Ebay, Amazon, Walmart (online and in store), JoAnn’s, quilt and sewing shops and sewing machine shops and you can find lots of shops on the internet as well. If you look online, a place that has been in business for quite a while and is pretty exclusive to selling sewing machines and vacuum cleaners (I’m still not totally sure why these two always go hand-in-hand), you can take your time and read the details and possibly any reviews about the machines you are looking at. If you prefer to shop in-person at a store, I recommend asking people you know what their favorite machines are, or checking reviews online for different brands. You really don’t need to feel overwhelmed because if you go fairly simple, you can’t go wrong.
For those who will need to move their machine a lot (say for traveling or for a lack of a permanent place to put it), or for the young tween sewist, the Brother machines at Walmart (the slightly more expensive ones, not the cheapest ones) are suitable and not quite as heavy as some brands out there.
With all of that said, the more you want to get into sewing, the more you may want to expand your horizons and get into fancier machines with more capabilities, you may want one that you can set into a sewing table, etc…However, if you are unsure, I recommend going simple first, maybe even borrowing a machine from somebody that has a good functioning machine to see if you like it.
Danielle says: I have not personally purchase more than one sewing machine in my lifetime. With that being said, I have used many different machines and I have some thoughts for you.
My mom is absolutely right that those Brother machines will work just fine for most of you out there. I used one from the time I was about 8 (?) until I was 16 or 17. By the time I entered high school, the Brother machine was just not cutting it for me. I was too aggressive for the machine. Lucky for me, my mom was upgrading her sewing machine, and I began to use her old PFAFF almost exclusively.
I’ve also used refurbished sewing machines, and again, they would serve most of you well. I used some refurbished machines during my days as a seamstress in town. My boss had an extra machine that I was using…until I broke it. She had it repaired, and I broke it again. She got another machine, and I broke that one too. She got another refurbished machine, and that one managed to last until I stopped working there (because of having babies and such, not because I kept breaking machines ;). I am what you might call “abusive” to my sewing machines. I sew fast. Really fast. And I also work with all kinds of tough things (think jeans, and leather). The machines I was using were not bad, but I guess I didn’t understand just how fantastic my PFAFF at home was, because these machines could not take the beating I was giving them, unlike my machine at home.
Working on those Brother machines, my only real complaint was that they were too bouncy. Since they are lighter-weight, they tend to jiggle a little more. However, this never affected my performance. What DID affect my work was working on a table that was not sturdy enough. Personally, I would recommend that you NOT work on a card table or other folding table. Many people will work on their dining room table, and that will usually work well enough. For somebody who plans to sew or quilt a lot, getting your machine out over and over will become a nuisance, and you may want to look into finding an extra table (if you have the space for it) at a rummage sale or on Craigslist for the sake of being able to keep your machine set up at all times. I realize that will not work for everybody, so don’t sweat it if you can’t make that happen! But, you will need a table to sew at (and I don’t mean a tall one or a coffee table…they won’t be the right height).
Somewhere along the line when I was growing up, my mom wore out her first sewing machine and ended up buying a PFAFF. These machines are expensive, but she was doing a lot of sewing and needed something that would hold up to the wear and tear she was dishing out. Eventually she upgraded her machine again to a computerized one with embroidery in it (it was another PFAFF). I ended up taking that first PFAFF machine over. When I got married, it moved with me to our apartment. Sometime after I stopped working for the seamstress in town and I was working solely from home, my machine died. I believe that machine was at least 10+ years old….years of intense work went through that machine. (My dad and my husband always laugh at my mom and I for the intense whirring sound from our machines that come out of our sewing rooms.)
At that point, I was ready to buy a new machine. I temporarily used one of those old Brother machines I used when I was younger, but then I broke that one too…after doing a lot of research, I ended up buying a new PFAFF. There are other brands out there that are high quality, but I had a lot of experience with PFAFF, so I trusted them. I have yet to regret my purchase. Please, please don’t think I am saying you need to buy a new PFAFF. I love mine, but they are expensive. Mine was sort of a “bottom of the line” model because I wanted one that was just a basic machine that could stand up to a lot of abuse. I think I got mine (on sale) for around $900. If you are interested in getting one, I know you can find them on Ebay from time to time in varying makes and models that you should be able to find more information on, and I’ve seen them for as little as $100 (not for parts). The only problem there being, you can’t guarantee that it will work.
There is one problem to buying a more expensive machine, and that is the fact that you can often only get repairs done at a certified dealer. If you take it anywhere else to get fixed, they may not be able to get the correct parts, or if they are able to do repairs for you, it may null your warranty. In the 7 years I’ve owned this machine, I only had to take it in once for a tune up not long after buying it (it was still under warranty, and I took it back to the dealer for repairs), because my needle got jammed on a pair of jeans I was repairing, and it messed up the timing on my machine. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that the machine jammed or the timing was off…don’t worry, we’ll teach you eventually 🙂 )
I guess the takeaway from my experience is don’t feel funny starting on something old, or used, or even one of the “cheaper” machines. I started out on those machines, and actually, I used some old table top machines (the ones that are built into the table), and I used a treadle machine as well. It wasn’t until I was making sewing a career that I needed something expensive.
Next week, I’ll write about the different parts of a machine and how it works, and we’ll give you a few pointers for testing out your “new” machine.
And by the way, if you do have a “cheapest of the cheap” sewing machine, you can still certainly learn how to sew on it…it just might not be as enjoyable for you. You could probably gain a basic understanding of the machine, and if and when you are ready to move on to a better machine, you may be able to “trade-in” your machine like you would for a new car…the dealer might “pay” you for your machine, so don’t feel too strapped down.
If you missed it, here is a link to our other post from today on how to thread and knot a needle, and how to sew on a button. And if you missed parts 1 and 2 on an intro to sewing, click on the highlighted links!
Please, please, please…let us know if you have any questions or comments. Please leave them here on the blog as opposed to social media so that everybody who has a question is able to read those of others! And please share! How many of you already have a machine to work with? Hope you’re excited for learning more! Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog so you never miss our sewing posts (or our other ones 🙂 )!
Love~Danielle and Trudy
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Thanks for all the information–especially for the recommendation for the tween sewist. I do have a question or two: is it okay for different children to use the same machine? Or does each sewist “break in” the machine and use it in his or her own way? Also, are there any machines made specifically for “lefties”? Is a free arm capability (I think that is what it’s called.) particularly useful.
Spring Lake Homestead
Great questions! I’m glad you asked. Yes, it is more than okay for multiple people to use the same machine. The only thing is that every time somebody new is using it, they should check the settings…in fact, every time you sit back down to the machine after a break, you should check to make sure the settings are what they need to be (I’ll cover more about that soon). The more involved a person is in sewing, the more likely they are to want to use their own machine and not want others to touch it, but for beginners or those who do not plan to do a lot of sewing, sharing a machine should be fine.
As for the “lefty” question…no, they are all made the same way with the “throat” of the machine opening to the left, and all of the controls being on the right. This shouldn’t make it any harder to sew.
The free arm capability is a fantastic feature that I would highly recommend. You won’t use it all of the time, but it is so helpful for when you need to work on things like hemming pants or sewing seams in a tight rounded area. There will be a compartment that is removable from the machine, and it opens the arm of the machine so you can slip your item onto the arm for easier sewing. When you are not working with items like that, you will want to put the compartment back in place. It isn’t strictly a necessity, but it is a huge bonus if you can get that feature! Let me know if you have any other questions!
I loved learning about different machines. I still consider myself new to sewing since I learned late in life and I am a very slow learner! I started with a Singer machine, and loved it except that when I would sew layers like for quilting a bag, it would jam and lose timing. I replaced it with a Brother SQ9185 and love it for going through layers of denim and batting. My question is this… Is it worth going with a more expensive machine that may only have the basics than going with a Brother that has many more specialty stitches and even a basic font monogramming feature. There is a Baby Lock distributor here. For $50 more than I paid for the Brother, I can get the bottom of the line Baby Lock, but it won’t do near as many things.
Spring Lake Homestead
It depends on why you are looking to upgrade. There are very few times for myself where I wish I had more features (more stitches), but it does happen from time to time. However, I would not give up my machine for anything, even though it is very basic. That machine is a work horse! My mom on the other had has two machines. One has some fancier stitches that go with it, and her other one is a basic quilter (it has a nice large throat, but simple stitches). If you are planning to keep your current machine that can handle the though stuff, then maybe going with the Brother that has the extra features would be the right choice. If you are not keeping your current machine and you plan to be hard on the new one (like working with denim and doing a lot of quilting), then maybe getting the Baby Lock would be the better choice for you. I hope that helps! Let me know if you have more questions!
My new ginghers came today!
Spring Lake Homestead
I hope you love them as much as I love mine!